Reginald Owen

Private Lives (1931)

The phrase “happily divorced” is one that easily applies to Amanda (Norma Shearer) and Elyot (Robert Montgomery).  Their marriage was extremely volatile, but now that they’re divorced (and thrilled to be rid of each other), they’ve both moved on and remarried; Amanda to Victor (Reginald Denny) and Elyot to Sibyl (Una Merkel).  After each of their weddings, they each head off to their honeymoons.  Imagine their surprise (and horror) when Amanda and Elyot find out they’re both honeymooning in the same city, in the same hotel, in rooms right next to each other.

They each beg their respective new spouses to leave immediately, but they both end up getting into arguments that end with Sybil and Victor storming out of their rooms.  Left alone, Amanda and Elyot step out onto the terrace outside of their rooms and start having a conversation.  They start looking back on their relationship and suddenly remember what it is that made them fall in love in the first place.  They kiss and impulsively decide to run away from their honeymoons and go to St. Moritz together.  The only thing standing in their way of happiness is their tendency to constantly get into fights, but they even think of a way to stop those.

At first, all is going well between Amanda and Elyot, but soon their arguments start popping up more and more often.  Eventually, their plan to stop arguments quits working and they get into a knock down, drag out fight that involves Amanda breaking a record over Elyot’s head and completely trashing their rented chalet.  The next day, they find that their new spouses have teamed up to track them down.  Sybil and Elyot decide that they aren’t going to divorce and Amanda and Victor do the same.  The two couples sit down to have breakfast together, but when Sybil and Victor get into an argument, Amanda and Elyot get such a kick out of seeing what they must look like, they once again decide to run off together.

Private Lives has some of my favorite acting by Norma Shearer.  There are some scenes where she says so much with just the glance of her eyes or the tone of her voice.  Definitely watch for her expression when she first realizes that Elyot is in the room next door and listen to the way she uses her voice when she and Elyot are reminiscing about their relationship, it’s great stuff.  The movie itself is fully of smart, witty lines that lent themselves perfectly to being delivered by Norma and Robert Montgomery.  The two of them had such a wonderful rapport with each other, it was a real delight to watch the two of them go to town with this material.

Fashions of 1934

What do you do when the investment firm you own goes under?  Why, naturally you decide to get into the fashion game!  Well, at least that’s what Sherwood Nash (William Powell) does.  When he meets aspiring fashion designer Lynn Mason (Bette Davis), Sherwood, Lynn, and Sherwood’s partner Snap (Frank McHugh) decide to start making copies of designs by famous designers and selling them to discount shops for a fraction of the cost.  When the owners of shops that sell the real deals find out about this, they want to put a stop to it, but Nash smooth talks them into selling his knock-offs, too.  Not only that, he gets them to send them to Paris to better copy the designs.

To get in to see the designs, Lynn pretends to be interested in buying something while Snap stealthily takes pictures.  But when their film gets confiscated, they have to come up with another plan.  By pure chance, they find out that the famous designer Oscar Baroque (Reginald Owen) turns to old costume design books for inspiration.  So they get some costume design books and let Lynn design some pieces based on what she finds in the books, then forge famous designers’ signatures to them.  The stores back in New York buy the designs up like hotcakes, but Sherwood can’t resist an opportunity to make money.  When he meets a man with an abundance of ostrich feathers, he gets an idea.  He buys up the feathers and goes to see Baroque’s fiancée Grand Duchess Alix (Verree Teasdale).  He knows Alix is no Grand Duchess, she’s really just Mabel from Hoboken.

Since Alix doesn’t want Sherwood to tell Baroque who she really is, he blackmails her into convincing Baroque to design a musical show full of ostrich feathered clothes that Alix could star in.  He agrees and the show is a big success, so then he decides to open his own boutique.  But Lynn is getting fed up with Sherwood’s schemes.  Also, she’s fallen in love with him and is jealous of all the attention he’s giving Alix.  Even though her designs are once again hugely popular at the boutique, the idea of running off with Jimmy the piano player sounds pretty appealing to Lynn.  But by now, Baroque has found out about the forged designs and calls the police on Sherwood.  Sherwood gets arrested, but he has one more trick up his sleeve to get out of jail, get Baroque to buy the boutique from him, and get Lynn.

If I had a rating system, I’d give Fashions of 1934 2.5 out of 4 stars.  William Powell is pretty good in it, but poor Bette Davis is woefully out of place.  It’s pretty well-known that Warner Brothers really didn’t know what to do with Bette Davis when she first started working for them.  She wasn’t a glamour girl, but Warner’s insisted on trying to make her into one and this was their biggest attempt to shoehorn into that type.  She had blonde hair and was decked out in all sorts of fancy Orry-Kelly gowns, it was so not her style.  At least in movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, even though they tried to make her somewhat glamorous, her part still had some grit to it.  There’s nothing gritty or raw about Fashions of 1934.  It’s a fun and entertaining little movie, but think of it as a William Powell movie more than anything else.  Bette isn’t outstanding here and although Busby Berkeley was involved, there’s only one musical number.  But at least he made the most of his one number, Spin a Little Web of Dreams is a really beautiful scene.  And if you’re interested in costume design, there’s a lot to appreciate here.

Downstairs (1932)

Downstairs 1932 John Gilbert

If you work for Baron Nicky von Burgen (Reginald Owen) and Baroness Eloise von Burgen (Olga Baclanova) long enough, you will be treated like family.  So when their longtime butler Albert (Paul Lukas) marries Anna (Virginia Bruce), their maid, the Baron throws them a lavish wedding.  During the reception, the family’s new chauffeur Karl (John Gilbert) shows up and we know right away he’s up to no good when he runs into Countess De Marmac (Hedda Hopper), his former employer with whom he had an affair.  Little do we know just how evil he really is.  That night, Albert is called into work on his wedding night after another butler gets drunk on the job.  When Anna is alone, Karl makes his first move on her by telling her a made-up story about how she reminds him of his dead mother.  But Anna isn’t the only woman in the house he tries to start something with.  He also sleeps with Sophie, the cook, and the Baroness.  He’s not terribly interested in Sophie, though, he only uses her for money.  He makes friends with Albert, but continues to pursue Anna.  One day, Karl gives Anna a piece of the Baroness’s jewelery.  When the Baroness confronts her about wearing her jewelery, Karl steps in and says he gave it to her as a gift and subtly reminds her that he’s got dirt on her.  The Baroness drops the subject and Karl endeared himself closer to Anna with that move.

The Baroness is now keen to get rid of Karl.  So when she knows Albert is listening, she mentions to the Baron that she thinks Anna and Karl are having an affair.  Later, just before the Baron and Baroness are set to leave on a boating trip, she tells Albert to go ahead and get rid of some of the staff while they’re gone.  But before they leave, the Baron changes his mind and decides he wants Albert to come on the trip with him, leaving Anna and Karl alone for the duration of the trip.  Karl takes Anna out for dinner, gets her drunk, and finally gets her to give into his advances.  When Albert comes home, he fires Karl and Anna admits to what happened.  But before he leaves, Karl goes to the Baroness and threatens to reveal their affair unless she keeps him on board and she relents.  Humiliated, Albert goes to the Baroness to resign, but she tells him what Karl has done and begs him to stay.  Karl plans to leave the next day, but not before he gets more of Sophie’s money.  He tries to convince Anna to leave with him, but she refuses.  Karl and Albert end up getting into a huge fight and when the Baron is in the room, Anna forces Karl to give Sophie her money back.  Karl finally leaves, but he only moves onto another victim.

Wow!  I have to say, there are a lot of extremely unlikable characters in pre-code movies, but John Gilbert as Karl is one of the most impressively deplorable characters I’ve ever seen.  He is just so incredibly shameless and ruthless!  And John Gilbert plays him extraordinarily well!  And he should, considering he wrote the story himself.  If you only really know John Gilbert as a silent film actor, then you should definitely check out Downstairs.  His performance here dispels the widely spread story that John Gilbert had a terrible voice and acting style for talkies.  Clearly his lack of success in talkies had more to do with him daring to cross Louis B. Mayer because, as can be seen here, there is nothing wrong with his voice or his acting.  Considering he had to resort to writing a story and selling it to MGM for $1 just to get a good talkie role speaks volumes of just how much Mayer had it out for him.

Virginia Bruce was also great, gotta love the very pre-code scene where she confesses to cheating on her husband and blames him for it.  I also liked seeing Olga Baclanova playing a fairly honest and likable character since the only other movie I’ve seen her in is Freaks, where she was anything but honest and likable.  All in all, a darn good movie.  Not only one of John Gilbert’s best talkies, but a real highlight in his whole career.

The Letter (1929)

The Letter 1929 Jeanne Eagels

Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels) is married to Robert (Reginald Owen), a rubber plantation in Malaya.  When Robert leaves for a night, Leslie sends a letter to her lover Geoffrey Hammond (Herbert Marshall), asking him to come see her.  When he gets the letter, Geoffrey is with his new mistress Li-Ti (Lady Tsen Mei).  At first they make fun of Leslie, but Geoffrey decides to go see her to break things off with her.  But Leslie isn’t too happy about him ending things with her so she grabs a gun and shoots him repeatedly.  She tells police that she killed him in self-defense and she sticks to that story until her lawyer finds out that Li-Ti has the letter she sent to Geoffrey the night he was killed.  Leslie agrees that they should buy the letter from her and the court clears her of all charges.  But then the lawyer goes to Robert to get reimbursed for buying the letter and Robert finds out the truth.

This version of The Letter is significantly different from the 1940 Bette Davis version.  First of all, the Bette Davis version is more ambiguous.  Her version opens with Leslie shooting Geoffrey, but we don’t actually see what happened before then.  We don’t know for sure if Leslie is telling the truth or not until the movie gets going.  But in the 1929 version, we actually get to see Leslie interact with Geoffrey and the events leading up to Geoffrey’s death.  And when Leslie goes to pay Li-Ti for the letter, Li-Ti truly revels in making Leslie grovel first.  Gale Sondergaard made Bette Davis work for that letter a little bit, but Li-Ti milked it for all she could.  She loved showing some children how she can have a wealthy white woman on her knees before her.  Perhaps the most pre-code element of this version is that Leslie really gets away with murder.  When the production codes were enforced, the sinners always had to pay for what they did.  In the Bette Davis version, she gets off in the eyes of the law, but in the end, Mrs. Hammond makes sure Leslie gets what’s coming to her.  But in the pre-code version, Leslie is not only cleared in court, she absolutely refuses to be punished in any way by anybody else.  Leslie and her husband had originally planned to leave the country as soon as the trial was over.  But then her husband found out about the letter and instead of leaving, he decides to make her stay there as a punishment.  That’s when she unrepentantly declares, “With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!”  He may be trying to punish her by making her stuck with him, but she punishes him right back because not only is he stuck with her, he’s stuck with someone who still loves another man.  I also love how Herbert Marshall went from playing Geoffrey in the 1929 version to playing Robert in the 1940 version.

The 1929 version of The Letter desperately needs to be more available.  I had to download it from a torrent because it’s not available on VHS or DVD and I don’t recall ever seeing it on TCM.  The copy I watched was in rather poor quality, but I could clearly see that it’s a very good little movie.  It packs a lot into an hour and Jeanne Eagels set a high standard for Bette Davis to live up to, especially in the final scene.  A lot of the early talkies haven’t held up very well over time, but time has actually been rather kind to The Letter.  The sound quality may be primitive, but the dialogue itself holds up better than a lot of other early talkies.  I’d really love to see a good quality version of it someday.  A real gem that deserves to be seen.